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Supreme Court appears poised to support student-athlete payments

WASHINGTON – Judges from all ideological backgrounds joined in Supreme Court arguments on Wednesday to express skepticism over the NCAA’s argument that it could ban modest payments to student-athletes in the name of amateurism despite antitrust laws. But they also seemed worried about opening the floodgates to other challenges.

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, noting that varsity sports generate billions of dollars in revenue, said that “antitrust laws should not be a cover for the exploitation of student-athletes.”

Justice Clarence Thomas noted that other college sports participants receive huge amounts of money. “It seems strange to me that the salaries of the coaches have increased,” he said.

In contrast, said Judge Elena Kagan, colleges and universities have used their market power “to set the salaries of athletes at extremely low levels.”

While there seems to be something of a consensus that the relatively small education-related payments at issue in the case should be allowed, several judges said they feared they might result in a deluge of other challenges.

“How do we know,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor asked, “that we are not just destroying the game as it is?”

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the NCAA was not free to limit educational benefits for Division I football and basketball players. items such as musical instruments, scientific equipment, graduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad, scholarships and internships. It did not allow outright payment of wages.

The court rejected the NCAA’s argument that athlete compensation alienates sports fans who value student amateur status. “A cap on certain educational benefits would preserve consumer demand for varsity athletics just as well as the contested rules,” Chief Justice Sidney R. Thomas wrote for a unanimous panel of three judges of the Court call from the United States to the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.

“These benefits are easily distinguished from the salaries of professionals,” he wrote, as they are education-related and could be provided in kind rather than cash. “The case provides sufficient support,” Justice Thomas added, “that the provision of education-related benefits does not and will not repel college sports fans.”

Urging the Supreme Court to hear an appeal, NCAA lawyers wrote that “the ruling will turn student-athletes into professionals, eliminating the pro-competitive distinction between college and professional sports.”

“Consumers are likely to come to view NCAA athletics as another form of minor league sports,” the group’s petition says.

The association said the distinctions drawn by the appeals court – between education-related payments and the like – were either meaningless or easily evaded. Internships, according to the thesis, present particular risks.

“It would be easy for schools to label these internships as ‘education related’ even if a star athlete received, say, a six month ‘internship’ at a sneaker company or car dealership that paid off. $ 500,000, ”he wrote in Dit February. “But fans, student-athletes and everyone else would recognize the reality: that student-athletes were paid large sums of money for their athletic play – with ‘internships’ a thinly disguised means of channeling them salaries essentially. professionals.

The Supreme Court last examined how antitrust laws applied to the association in 1984, declaring its restrictions on television coverage of college football games to be illegal. But the decision, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, included an influential passage on student-athletes.

“The NCAA plays a vital role in maintaining a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports,” Majority Judge John Paul Stevens wrote. “There is no doubt that a great deal of latitude is needed to play this role, or that the preservation of the student-athlete in higher education adds richness and diversity to intercollegiate athletics and is very important. complies with the objectives of “antitrust laws”.

Lawyers for the main plaintiff in the new case, Shawne Alston, a former University of West Virginia running back, said he and other athletes were exploited. The Biden administration filed a brief supporting the athletes in the case, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston, No. 20-512, claiming the Ninth Circuit struck the right balance.

“The promotion of amateurism widens consumer choice and thus improves competition, maintaining a distinction between varsity and professional athletics,” said the brief. But “some of the contested rules have not really boosted consumer demand.”

Other than the coronavirus pandemic, no matter has recently demanded more NCAA attention than the rights of student-athletes, especially whether they should be able to enjoy their fame. College sports leaders have long feared that relaxing the age-old rules would effectively professionalize students and open up a different spectrum of challenges, but they have faced increasing pressure in recent years from Congress and many states. from the country. More importantly, a Florida law that directly challenges NCAA policies is expected to come into effect this summer, and California lawmakers are considering a proposal to expedite a similar measure there.

Although the NCAA has promised to rewrite its rules, it delayed final approval over the winter after the Trump administration’s Justice Department raised doubts. And Congress has not rushed to give the association the kind of political and legal cover it needs.

“The NCAA seems to be trying to present itself as an organization that works for athletes, that works to protect the safety and well-being of athletes, which is, as they mean to put it, amateurism and doing. what’s in it. the best interests of those people, ”said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and former footballer at Stanford University recently. “And it sounds more and more hollow.”

The court ruling in the Alston case could shape the association’s approach, in part because it could define the scope of the NCAA’s authority.

“We are at a very pivotal time,” said Mark Emmert, the association’s president, as he discussed the case in an interview in mid-March.

Alan blinder contribution to reports.

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